June 23, 2007 / 7:00 PM / 11 years ago

Waldheim, ex-UN leader and Nazi, buried in Austria

VIENNA (Reuters) - Former U.N. chief and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, whose career was tainted by disclosures of his Nazi past, was buried in a state funeral on Saturday.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn blesses the flag-draped coffin of former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim during a memorial service led at Vienna's St Stephen's Cathedral on June 23, 2007. Waldheim, died aged 88 on Thursday, June 14, 2007. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Hundreds of mourners gathered around Vienna’s landmark St. Stephen’s Cathedral where Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn held a requiem for Waldheim, who died of heart failure on June 14, aged 88.

He was laid to rest with military honors in a crypt for presidents. Austrian media said at Waldheim’s request no foreign dignitaries were invited but the services were attended by representatives from neighboring Liechtenstein, the Italian province of Alto Adige, or South Tyrol, and the Vatican.

The status of predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol, now a semi-autonomous province, was a main issue during Waldheim’s tenure as foreign minister from 1968 to 1970.

“Waldheim became the projection screen for a guilty conscience linked to the Nazi period,” President Heinz Fischer told the congregation in St. Stephen’s, overlooking the coffin draped in the Austrian flag. “He deserves his lifetime to be seen as a whole.”

Waldheim served as U.N. Secretary-General from 1972 to 1981. During his 1986 campaign for the ceremonial post of president, the wider public learned about his past as a Nazi officer — a time he had failed to speak up about.

Waldheim had served under General Alexander Loehr, who led a brutal German army unit and was executed in 1947 for war crimes.

He admitted concealing his service with Hitler’s army in the Balkans, but denied knowing of Nazi war crimes there, including deportations of thousands of Greek Jews.

It was later revealed that Waldheim’s record had been in U.N. archives for decades and was known to Yugoslavs and Russians as well as U.S. intelligence.

The revelations sparked an international outcry, prompting the United States to place him on a “watch list” barring him from entry and making Waldheim unwelcome in many nations.

POSTHUMOUS LETTER

During his time as president, he made virtually no state visits, except to the Vatican where he went twice during his term, and to Arab countries.

But in Austria — where many believed they were victims of Nazi aggression not perpetrators of Nazi crimes — the critical storm abroad caused a backlash and boosted his poll ratings.

In a posthumously published letter, Waldheim said he regretted deeply having voiced his “unequivocal” stance on Nazi war crimes far too late in his life.

At the funeral, President Fischer said he hoped people would not reject Waldheim reaching out after his death and “recognize the human greatness in this gesture”.

In a funeral procession, Waldheim’s coffin was taken to U.N. regional headquarters where a eulogy was held before he was laid to rest in the city’s Zentralfriedhof cemetery.

But for many, the ghost of Waldheim’s past and the debate surrounding him live on.

“Like so many other Austrians, he was a follower in the Nazi time. He was a weak human being,” said Dagmar Sevelda, 63, from Vienna.

“But it also brought some good to Austria - it started a cathartic process about our past. And one should forgive the dead.”

Additional reporting by Alexandra Zawadil

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